HUNTERDON COUNTY, NJ - Citing much lower numbers of total COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, and the overall percentage being far behind Bergen County and the other hardest-hit parts of the Garden State during the pandemic, the county board of chosen freeholders again made an earnest appeal to Gov. Phil Murphy for a faster initiative to reopen this part of New Jersey.

The message was spread first to the governor’s office over a week ago, with a joint message from the freeholder boards of Warren, Sussex and Hunterdon counties expressing their interests in spurring and sustaining an economic recovery in the region.

On June 2, during the freeholders’ virtual meeting Deputy Freeholder Director Sue Soloway said Murphy is moving “far too slowly, particularly here in Hunterdon County.” She and freeholder Matt Holt are the board’s liaisons for county economic development.

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Her message to Murphy is, “it’s time to allow the people to make their own decisions again and let businesses in Hunterdon County decide whether or not they want to open.”  

Soloway took the usual responsibility of Hunterdon County Health Officer Karen DeMarco in updating her colleagues and the public on the latest COVID-19 data and testing figures for the county. Soloway said 1,002 positive cases have been identified in Hunterdon since the start of March, and approximately 400 of those cases (40 percent) were associated with long-term care and correctional facilities.

The joint Hunterdon County/Somerset County testing site at Raritan Valley Community College has conducted over 1,200 tests for residents. Soloway said on Tuesday that 30 percent of people tested received results that they are COVID-19 positive.

“Hunterdon County continues to have one of the lowest totals for cases in the state, thanks in large part to the preparedness of the county health department and our Office of Emergency Management (OEM),” she said.
“The number of community spread, non-facility COVID-19 case increases over the past 10 days, averaging four positive tests per day countywide, despite increased testing.”

The RVCC joint testing site still requires individuals to have a prescription from their physician and to be presenting some symptoms related to COVID-19 in order to be tested, she explained. To date, 36 volunteers at the RVCC site have contributed 1,056 volunteer hours supporting this test site and contact tracing efforts.

Tying in the recent progress in declining COVID-19 cases to being in a position different (better) than other parts of the state for reopening, Soloway noted the trend should correlate to the many ways of doing business in a much less-densely populated county and region of New Jersey.

“The most important news in my view is our steady decline in the number of community spread, non-facility cases in Hunterdon County (those not associated with a long-term care, assisted living or nursing home and any correctional institutions),” she said. “Clearly the curve has not only been flattened, but it is in a steep decline. Given those facts, as I have stated recently at our previous meetings, it is time to open up all of our businesses, to put people back to work and to start our economy on an upward projection again -- the excuses for keeping us locked down or shut-in are passed.”

She also stated that Walmart and CVS are conducting tests in Hunterdon County locations, but at present their tests are “limited to the symptomatic, first responders and those who have been in close contact with someone who tested positive.”

Freeholder director Shaun C. Van Doren said the county was proactive in reaching out to corporate leadership of CVS/Caremark and Rite Aid to offer COVID-19 testing at their Hunterdon County stores, which were not included in May’s announcement on New Jersey pharmacy sites initially designated for testing. In the county, Rite Aid has two pharmacies while CVS has four (including one just off Route 31 and Hart Boulevard, adjacent to PNC Bank and Starbucks in Flemington).  

“I reached out with letters to the CEOs of CVS and Rite Aid, asking that testing sites be set up at one of each of their pharmacies in Hunterdon County,” he said. “In my letter, I noted that testing and follow-up contact tracing can lead to a quicker reopening of businesses and other day-to-day activities and events, and that coronavirus testing is just as important to Hunterdon residents as it is to residents of other parts of New Jersey.”

In the letter, Van Doren noted that the closest pharmacy testing for COVID-19 is an hour from the county seat of Flemington.

After the initial announcement, CVS began offering testing at their Rt. 202 (Readington Township) location’s pharmacy. While it’s a start, Van Doren said he would like Murphy to lobby Walgreens “to get in on the act.”

“In New York State, Walgreens is providing free testing, but they are not offering the service in New Jersey,” he said. “There are seven Walgreens pharmacies in our county so when that company decides to offer testing in New Jersey we will press for testing at one of their sites here.”

Van Doren said that with the goal of reopening businesses and getting people back to work as Soloway spoke of, the regional reopening and establishment of a new website to provide information that can help local businesses was decided upon with the Warren and Sussex freeholder boards. The new website and a message for Murphy on taking this reopening for Northwest New Jersey into consideration immediately were delivered.

“This will be called the Gateway to Resources for Business Reopening,” Van Doren said. “The joint Warren, Sussex and Hunterdon website is a one-stop information hunt for commercial enterprises seeking the best advice for reopening. Advice on protecting the health of customers and employees, provided by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), as well as industry-specific recommendations and guidelines for safe reopenings, are included in the resources on the site.”

He also commented on the situational awareness local health officials and business leaders have in the western portions of the state.

“Our freeholder boards made the point that as Hunterdon, Warren and Sussex counties have not received any direct federal or state funds during this pandemic, it is essential that our businesses be permitted to reopen using the existing measures already authorized and implemented for essential retail and limited non-essential businesses,” he said. “In Northwest New Jersey, the Skylands region, businesses are ready to operate and people want to go back to work, it’s time.”

Holt thanked Van Doren for his choice in working with the other county boards, “to make a strong case for our Northwest part of the state to reopen for business.”

“Economic recovery is becoming more and more critical with each day Gov. Murphy delays,” he said. “For some reason, it is okay to quarantine those that are very highly affected but at the same time to basically quarantine folks that should be out and working and helping in the economic recovery. “The county’s low numbers of COVID-19 infections make a strong case for regional reopening, and again we commend our OEM and health department for their preparedness before and when the pandemic hit.”

Soloway said the county is advised by the state government that more testing for the wider population is on the way. When an announcement is ready, the freeholders and county staff will disseminate this to the public in multiple formats.